LADY GODIVA. This Vitagraph film inspired by Tennyson’s poem highlights the nonsensical aspects of the story nicely. It’s the tale of a grasping earl who refuses his wife’s pleas to lower taxes unless she rides naked through town. The townsfolk of Coventry recognize the nobility of her cause and agree to look away, all except for one sleazebag, who is struck blind for his troubles.
The dictates of melodrama require Peeping Tom to appear early on, cackling and stroking his chin in an obviously wicked manner. He’s played, hilariously, by an actor named Harold Wilson — I’m surprised this film wasn’t revived as propaganda against the Wilson government. Tom/Harold is showing wicked delight just at the prospect of being taxed to starvation, which makes little obvious sense — I guess he’s somehow thinking “I’m going to starve, but at least — somehow — I feel that I’m going to get to see some skin.”
The Earl is also characterized as a nasty piece of work — something in the way he angrily tosses a piece of parchment on the floor suggests an ill-tempered swine, although we have no idea what was written on the parchment. Maybe he was just offended by the texture of the paper.
It’s likewise unclear why he demands this strange behaviour from his wife. I guess the logic might be, “If you really cared for the poor, your own modesty wouldn’t be as important as improving their lives,” but it requires quite a leap to even get to that point. I have to assume that the Earl has never seen his wife naked and has fixed on this whole thing as a desperate ploy.
Mrs Godiva then tells the townsfolk what she’s going to do and they all agree not to look. Cue the money shot, with Lady G’s golden tresses artfully arranged to conceal her bosom, and a horse strategically placed in front of her to conceal — no, she’s definitely wearing a big pair of panties. Stop sniggering. It’s the correct term.
Peeping Tom is sat at home, looking drunk and altogether miserable, when suddenly an intertitle gives him an idea of boring a hole in his shutters — Harold Wilson then gives a quite distressingly convincing impersonation of being struck blind.
The audience, meanwhile, gets to see everything he failed to see, and is NOT struck blind. Certainly not immediately. The power of cinema!
Mrs G gets back home and hurries indoors — no suggestion that she’s found her nudity liberating at all, and certainly no sign that being “clothed in her virtue” has been beneficial to morale — she just seems humiliated and terrified. She pauses at the threshold to give a dramatic, but impossible-to-interpret “Heil Hitler” gesture.
Apparently there’s no question of the Earl going back on his word, insane wagers being legally binding at the time, so the taxes are slashed and everybody’s happy. It’s not altogether clear, since apparently nobody at all saw Mrs Earl on her nude equestrian spree, how they can even be sure it happened. It seems like a pretty good religious metaphor.
(I don’t know how long I put up with prayer in school assembly before wondering what would happen if I didn’t take part. So I opened my eyes and looked around. Everybody else had their eyes closed, including the teachers, so there was no possibility of my atheism being detected. I kept waiting for someone else to look up and meet my gaze, maybe wink. Nobody ever did.)
Of course, what everybody basically remembers about Lady Godiva is the naked joyride, not the noble intent — that’s the most realistic aspect of the story. If it happened for real, the townsfolk would happily retain their taxes but they’d still regard Godiva as some kind of slut. Peeping Tom would take her picture for the Coventry Peeper, and everybody would buy it with the money they’d saved in taxes. And very few of them would find that an odd contradiction.
Look! Here’s the “nude” scene from the 1955 version with Maureen O’Hara. Interestingly, Peeping Tom is blinded not by divine justice per se but by a big bloke with a flaming torch. Seems a bit extreme. It’s all quite atmospherically staged with the clip-clop hoofbeats on the soundtrack and the languid tracking shots past crowds of men straining every fibre of their being not to peep.